Bolsonaro's Long ShadowRoundup
tags: far right, South America, Latin American history, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian History
Nara Roberta Silva is a core faculty member and Praxis Program head at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, where she teaches about social movements, race, and social theory. She is on Twitter @nararosilva.
THE MOB MET LITTLE RESISTANCE. For hours, thousands ran rampant through the halls of power, breaking windows and furniture, destroying art, stealing firearms and documents, defecating on the floor—a chaotic expression of an intensely held belief that South America’s largest democracy had failed them. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, inaugurated one week earlier to a third term, was not, in their view, Brazil’s legitimate president; that title belonged to Jair Bolsonaro.
The January 8 insurrection certainly did not arise from nowhere. Bolsonaro never formally conceded, nor did he attend the inauguration. His allies adopted an ambiguous tone when referring to the elections and the transition of power, allusively presenting Lula’s victory—by a historically narrow margin—as a sham. Blockades on highways in the immediate aftermath of the run-off in October and subsequent encampments in front of military headquarters across the country revealed the consolidation of reactionary dissent. Indeed, that thousands stormed the gleaming modernist government buildings in Brazil’s capital on January 8 came as no surprise; it was simply the most virulent manifestation of anti-democratic forces long at play in the country.
Bolsonaro first came into the national spotlight during the impeachment of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, in 2016. An MP and former army captain, Bolsonaro delivered a speech paying tribute to the late Colonel Brilhante Ustra, a torturer during the country’s military dictatorship. In the event, several of Bolsonaro’s fellow legislators ignored the specific allegations of misconduct lodged against Rousseff when justifying their votes to impeach and used the floor to criticize the president’s economic and social policies, showing that the case indeed addressed other interests. Rousseff’s removal from power on legally precarious grounds brought an end to thirteen years of Workers’ Party rule—and marked a turning point in a crisis of democracy initiated in the massive demonstrations of 2013.
Initially progressive in nature, the so-called June Journeys were also a pivot for the reorganization of the Brazilian right wing and the reappearance of a far-right in the country. On the one hand, the demonstrations expressed the limits of the Workers’ Party’s program, whose model of inclusive citizenship brought tangible changes yet failed to modify the structure or defy the forces at work in Brazilian society. From this perspective, the demonstrations manifested a desire to go beyond what the Workers’ Party proposed, reorienting the country away from inclusivity through the market and aiming at a more robust conception of social rights. On the other hand, the June Journeys opened the floodgates to a range of reactionary forces, such as the libertarianism inspired by the Austrian School of Economics, religious fundamentalism grounded in neo-Pentecostalism and prosperity theologies, and a rebranded anticommunism nostalgic for the military dictatorship. Reinvigorated, the right wing was not able to win the following elections, in 2014, but gathered enough strength to redefine the political debate in Brazil—the commitment to the “rules of the game,” established since the end of the dictatorship, was no more a basic expectation.
The ousting of President Rousseff should be understood as a coup in that the impeachment was an abrupt move by Brazilian elites to restore a regressive socioeconomic project, supported by middle classes’ aversion to upward social mobility of the working poor and obsession with social distinction from them. Indeed, Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, the former vice president, swiftly passed an orthodox neoliberal agenda for the country in his short tenure, suspending public investment for twenty years and eviscerating worker protections. But a new majority had to be created to make the project viable in the long run. Jair Bolsonaro was the one to weave together the newly reorganized right wing and expand its base.
While Bolsonaro is commonly dubbed the Brazilian Trump, his rise to power is not merely a manifestation of a global crisis of democracy considered abstractly; it’s a direct consequence of the Brazilian elite’s inability to tolerate even modest fixes to the country’s gross inequality or the meaningful participation of the marginalized in the decisions of the state. Bolsonaro was not the elite’s first or favorite choice but was fully embraced to preserve and expand their privileges—no matter the consequences to the rest of the country and its institutions.
Stressing the particular path of democracy’s decline in Brazil is not to diminish the existence of a reactionary global wave and the links of the far-right around the world—for example, Eduardo Bolsonaro, a prominent politician and one of Bolsonaro’s sons, has never been shy about his connections with Steve Bannon. Some conservative organizations that have emerged in Brazil over the last two decades, such as Estudantes Pela Liberdade (Students for Liberty Brazil) and Instituto Millenium, are financially supported by national and transnational companies as well as American foundations, notably the libertarian Atlas Network. Exchanges across borders have been crucial to hone the discourse of the far-right, and gradually establish its fundamental frame in Brazil: the safeguarding of the “traditional family,” heavily leveraged by Bolsonaro himself over the past years. Regarding the distinct strain inequality puts on Brazilian democracy is crucial, however, to understand that Bolsonaro is the manifestation of unresolved dilemmas in Brazilian society.